SOMOS festival participants

SOMOS Festival Celebrates Spanish, Portuguese and Latinx Poetry and Culture

It’s well-known that Rutgers University–Newark’s diversity has set it apart from its peers nationwide. For 25 years it’s been ranked by U.S. News and World Report as the most diverse campus in the country. Contributing to that diversity are RU-N's Hispanic and Latinx students, who compose more than 25 percent of the school’s undergraduate full-time equivalent student enrollment, which makes RU-N a federally designated Hispanic Serving Institution.

Last week, several SASN departments hosted the inaugural SOMOS Festival at the Paul Robeson Campus Center, bringing together students and teachers from nearby Bloomfield High School with RU-N faculty and students for a celebration of Spanish, Portuguese and Latinx poetry & culture. The festival was funded with the generous support of a Chancellor’s Impact Seed Grant and was open to the public as well.

“The festival grew out of conversations about how we could celebrate poetry and culture with the wider community,” said Associate Professor Elena Lahr-Vivaz of RU-N's Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies, who helped organize the event. “Especially after spending so much time on Zoom, it was inspiring to spend a day together listening to poetry and learning about culture.”

The event opened with brief remarks from several RU-N faculty, including Lahr-Vivaz and Associate Professor Jason Cortés of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies; Graphic Design Professor Jennifer Bernstein of the Arts, Culture and Media department; and Executive Vice Chancellor and Associate Professor of Sociology Sherri Ann Butterfield.

SASN Dean Jacqueline Mattis then welcomed the crowd of 80 people in attendance by discussing how language moves hearts and minds to create positive social change, and invoking the term “Somos,” which means “We are” in Spanish, calling it “the simplest and most profound theme for the festival today” and a powerful way to celebrate the presence of the students in the room and the poetry they were about to recite and perform.

Mattis then connected “Somos” to the mission-driven ethos of the event and RU-N, congratulating the organizers and students on what they can accomplish “when people come together to simply get things done,” and celebrating SASN’s history of community-engaged scholarship that pairs faculty and students in environmental sciences who work with local farmers to remove toxins from soil “so that your water is not toxic and so that the food on your table can be consumed without you worrying about the impact it will have,” and has Data Science faculty working side-by-side with students to gather data from companies such as Johnson & Johnson and “turning that data into meaningful policy about disparities in health.”

Mattis finished by reinforcing RU-N's mission of social justice and the importance of each event participant to not only the goals of the day but to the world at large, saying that she was “looking forward to hearing what you have done with the language that was given to you, the language that you invented, and the language that you’re going to invent.”

We were delighted to welcome the students from Bloomfield High School to campus and were so impressed with their poetry recitations. In fact, we've already begun planning for next year.

Bernstein and some of her graphic-design students then took to the stage to show how they created the branding for SOMOS, which they deployed in posters and other promotional material, as well as the event mural they designed and installed in Conklin Hall.

Poets and MFA alumni Hugo dos Santos and PaulA Neves took the stage next, reading poems in English, Spanish and Portuguese. They were joined by translator, poet and critic Urayoán Noel, a native of Puerto Rico who is an Associate Professor of English and Spanish at NYU, who also had the audience join him in an improvisational poem/performance piece.

Students from Bloomfield High School then participated in the 2023 Poetry Recitation competition, which Cortés and a team of RU-N students judged. Astrid Claribel Rodriguez Arias won the Excellence in Creativity award, Kelly Perez took home the Outstanding Performance prize, Carlos Ruiz won the Achievement in Declamation honor, and Rodriguez Arias also received the award for outstanding original composition on the Festival theme.

After a short break, Professor Kim Holton, of the Spanish and Portuguese Studies department, then took the podium to discuss the evolution of the Portuguese Fado musical tradition as children of immigrants bring new influences into it. To demonstrate, she shared a post-punk/fado band that bills itself as “Fadocore” as well as a performance by a Newark artist in Newark who combines fado with country/western influences.

Stephanie Rodriguez, an Instructor of Translation & Interpreting in the Spanish and Portuguese Studies department, shared info about the Lives in Translation initiative, which takes advantage of RU-N's extraordinary diversity by recruiting undergraduate volunteers to help the Rutgers Law Clinic and local nonprofits and businesses with translation and interpretation services in scores of languages.

And Engelbert Santana, the Dean of Advisement for the Honors Living-Learning Community, talked about HLLC, which reimagines the honors college concept by identifying talent within our midst and providing opportunity and prosperity students who have been disenfranchised by systems of inequality.

Lahr-Vivaz and other organizers were pleased with the inaugural event and the energy it took to bring it together.

“The Festival was very much a collaborative project between Spanish & Portuguese Studies and Graphic Design, and students from both departments were involved every step of the way,” said Lahr-Vivaz. “We were delighted to welcome the students from Bloomfield High School to campus, and were so impressed with their poetry recitations. In fact, we've already begun planning for next year.”